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Why Do Bad Things Happen If God Is Good?

  • Ron Rhodes Author
  • 2004 8 Jun
Why Do Bad Things Happen If God Is Good?

Have you read the book of Deuteronomy lately?  If you have, I am sure you will recall that after God forbade Moses to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land as a result of disobedience at Meribah (Numbers 20:12), Moses pleaded with God to change His mind.  But God responded, "That is enough. … Do not speak to me anymore about this matter … You are not going to cross this Jordan" (Deuteronomy 3:26-27).  Moses, one of the greatest spiritual giants in the history of the human race, was handed a big no from God.

Most Christians receive a no from God more often than they care to admit.  In this way, God is like human parents who must often say no to their children for their own good.  God always has His children's highest good in mind when He says no.  Moreover, He always gives them the grace to accept it.  Christian pastor Blaine Allen is right when he says that never will the Lord say no to a petition without instantly supplying the grace to accept the answer. … He will not stockpile it in us in advance, but he will not allow it to be depleted either.  Whatever burden he places on us, he will moment by moment carry for us as well.1

The apostle Paul also received a big no from God, and he learned all about the grace of which Allen speaks.  Consider these words from 2 Corinthians 12:2-9:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.  Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows.  And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – was caught up to paradise.  He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.  I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.  Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth.  But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.  To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.

Apparently, the apostle Paul saw "the third heaven," the resplendently beautiful dwelling place of Christ and the saints.  This glorious, awe-inspiring experience would likely have tempted him to boast about it pridefully, especially when some in the city of Corinth challenged his apostleship.  So God gave him a "thorn" to keep him humble.  God had a purpose for allowing him to suffer.

Our text specifies that this thorn was "in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7).  The word flesh is the normal word in the Greek language used to denote the physical substance of which the body is composed.  Whatever Paul suffered from, it was apparently physical in nature.  And it hurt

The word for "thorn" carries the idea of "a sharpened wooden shaft," "a stake," or "a splinter."  This gives us at least some indication of the pain Paul was forced to endure – a pain that God would not take away.  Bible expositor J. Dwight Pentecost observes this: 

When Paul talked about the thorn in the flesh, it wasn't a little prick such as one gets from a rosebush.  He wouldn't have talked about being buffeted had it been something insignificant.  This was a very serious and grievous suffering.  It extended over a period of time because he said he prayed to the Lord three times that this thorn might be taken away; but God chose to deny his request.2

Many scholars believe Paul may have suffered from a severe eye disease that lasted a considerable time.  We all know how uncomfortable a little dust in the eye can be, but perhaps the idea of a thorn in the eye better captures the kind of pain Paul suffered.  Such an eye affliction may be the reason why Paul did not travel alone throughout Asia Minor (see Acts 15:40; 16:1-3).  He apparently needed a guide.

Whether or not this was the case, our text tells us that a messenger of Satan was behind this thorn that tormented Paul (2 Corinthians 12:7).  The Greek word for "torment" literally means "to strike," "to beat," "to harrass," or "to trouble."  This is the same word used for the soldiers violently striking and beating Jesus during His trial (Matthew 26:67).  Paul's physical ailment was beating him down.  Despite this, God's response to Paul's request for the thorn's removal was no.  God's refusal was not in any way related to a sin on Paul's part nor to any lack of faith.  In fact, the affliction was not for punishment but for protection – that is, protection from a self-inflated attitude.  Because of this, Paul accepted God's verdict on the matter without hesitation.

We might speculate that prior to Paul becoming a Christian, he probably boasted about being a Hebrew of Hebrews, and he likely gloried in keeping the law.  But now, as an apostle of Christ, we find him boasting in his weakness, for when he is weak, Christ showers His power on Him all the more abundantly.  Experiences he formerly would have abhorred (like his present physical affliction), he could now welcome supernaturally because the evidence of Christ's power in the midst of them brought glory to God, not Paul.

Paul thus said, "That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10).  The word delight in this verse means "to approve or "to be well pleased with."  It refers to an active delighting in God's ways, regardless of the outward circumstances in life.  You see, through his suffering, Paul learned all about God's full sufficiency in all things.  Just as God intended, the "thorn" produced in Paul a dependence that revealed Christ's power.

Might I suggest that, even though we are all spiritual toddlers next to the apostle Paul, God may do the same with us on occasion?  God may allow you and me to encounter certain painful circumstances with the sole goal of causing us to become dependent on His strength.  God may allow us to suffer so that we might be humbled and so that His strength might be made manifest through our weakness.

This has certainly been true in my own life.  In fact, the more I grow and mature as a Christian, the more acutely aware I am of my weaknesses and my need to depend on God and His strength.  The truth of the matter is that the Christian life is a dependent life – and God often engineers our circumstances to teach us this pivotal truth.

Saved in Suffering, Not from It

Related to the many times I have received a no from God through the years is an important lesson I have learned:  God often does not save us from painful circumstances, but He sustains us in our painful circumstances.  Christian pastor Paul Powell once said that "though God does not exempt us from suffering and He does not explain to us why our suffering comes, He does enter into our experiences with us and helps us through them.  God doesn't save us from trouble; he saves us in trouble."3  I think Powell is right.

Consider the case of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3.  These three companions of Daniel refused to worship the image of gold set up by King Nebuchadnezzar, so the king threatened to throw them into a blazing fire (Daniel 3:15).  The three brave lads responded by informing the king that God was perfectly able to rescue them (verse 17).  This made the king so mad that he heated the furnace seven times hotter than usual and commanded his strongest soldiers to toss Daniel's three friends into the flames (verses 19-20).

As the King was observing what should have been an instant incineration, he was suddenly startled by what he saw and exclaimed:  "Look!  I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods" (Daniel 3:25).  The king then commanded the three to come out of the flames, and after seeing that they were completely unharmed, exclaimed:  "Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants!  They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God" (verse 28).

Of course, if God had wanted to, He certainly could have intervened early on and prevented the three youths from being thrown into the furnace.  But He chose not to do this. He allowed the three to be mistreated!  But He did not allow them to go through this ordeal alone.  Indeed, God sent his angel – perhaps the Angel of the Lord, which many theologians interpret to be a preincarnate appearance of Christ4 – to sustain them in the midst of the flames.  This illustrates my point that God often does not exempt His children from suffering, but He sustains them in the suffering.  God's children are never alone in their trials.

Scripture is brimming with other examples of this:

  • God did not prevent Hagar from being mistreated by Sarah, but He was with Hagar in her time of suffering (Genesis 16).
  • God did not keep Joseph from being sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, but He was with Joseph in his unfair circumstances (Genesis 27-50).
  • God did not keep Moses from being mistreated by the Egyptians, but He was with Moses in his trials (Hebrews 11:24-27).
  • God did not keep David from being severely persecuted by Saul, but God did sustain and rescue David in these persecutions (1 Samuel 19:1-26:25).
  • God did not keep Daniel from the lion's den, but He was with Daniel in the lion's den (Daniel 6).
  • God did not keep the apostle Paul from going to jail, but He was with Paul in his jail experiences (Ephesians 3:1; Philippians 1:7; Colossians 4:10).
  • God did not keep the apostle John form being exiled on the island of Patmos, but He was with John in his time of exile (Revelation 1:9-10).

It seems obvious that God's pattern is often to save in, not from.  This means that you and I may not be exempt from trials, but we can be sure that God is with us through all of them.

This brings to mind Psalm 23:4, in which David reflected:  "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."  The "valley of the shadow of death" refers to a treacherous, dreadful place.  In fact, many scholars believe the phrase is more accurately translated "the valley of deep darkness."  It may be that David was thinking of an actual place in Palestine – "a chasm among the hills, a deep, abrupt, faintly lighted ravine with steep sides and a narrow floor."5  This place is a home for vultures by day and a haven for wolves and hyenas by night.  The danger for defenseless sheep is obvious.

Because he knew the Lord was with him, David feared no evil while passing through the valley of the shadow of death.  The truth we draw from this verse is that while God may not keep us from going through such dark circumstances, God is with us in our circumstances, and we need not ever fear.  Just as a shepherd with his rod and staff comforts his sheep, so God – or more specifically, Christ our Shepherd – comforts us, even in the midst of distressing circumstances.

The instruments used by ancient shepherds were highly effective.  The rod is a great oak club about two feet long.  It had a round head in which the shepherd pounded sharp bits of metal.  This rod was specifically used to protect the sheep from wild animals.  "A skillful shepherd not only swung the club to smash the head of an attacker but he could also hurl the club like a missile over the heads of his flock to strike a wolf lurking in the distance."6 

The staff was bent or hooked at one end.  It was often used by shepherds to restrain a sheep from wandering off from the flock or to hook its legs to pull it out of a hole.  At other times, the shepherd would use the staff to pull branches aside when a sheep got entangled in the brush.  By using the rod and the staff, the shepherd brought "comfort" to the sheep (Psalm 23:4).  The Hebrew word for "comfort" literally means "to give strength" or "empower."  In the presence of their shepherd, the sheep were strengthened and empowered because they knew they were secure in his presence.

The same is true of each of us as Christ's sheep.  Knowing that He is with us every step of the way and that we are never alone, we have strength to cope with whatever might come our way.  We will never find ourselves in situations the Lord is not aware of, and He will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).  The divine shepherd does not exempt us from such situations, but He is always with us in such situations. 

Healing Hearts:  It Is Well with My Soul

Every time I hear the story, my heart swells in praise to God for His faithfulness.

Horatio Gates Spafford was a personal friend of the great evangelist, Dwight Moody.  Spafford and his family decided to go to England in November, 1873, to join Moody and Ira Sankey on an evangelistic crusade, and then travel in Europe.  Spafford had to attend to some last-minute business before he could leave, so he sent his family on ahead on a great ship – a French steamer called the Ville de Havre.

Tragically, the ship never made it to its destination.  It collided with another ship off the coast of Newfoundland and quickly sank.  Only 47 of the 226 passengers survived.  One of these was Spafford's wife, Anna.  Their four young daughters – Maggie, Tanetta, Annie, and Bessie – drowned and perished in the harsh, icy waters.  I can hardly imagine what Spafford must have felt when he received a telegram from his bereaved wife saying, "Saved alone."

Spafford immediately dropped all business and boarded the next ship so he could be with his wife.  Upon reunited, they met with Moody.  Spafford said to him, "It is well.  The will of God be done." 

We do not know exactly when, but some time after this overwhelming personal tragedy, Spafford penned the lyrics to one of the most beloved hymns in Christian history, "It Is Well with My Soul."  His words stir the soul:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well with my soul;
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

It is well with my soul;
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

My sin – oh, the bliss of this glorious thought:
My sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

It is well with my soul;
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

And, Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend;
"Even so," it is well with my soul …

It is well with my soul;
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Horatio Gates Spafford experienced the reality that though God does not exempt us from suffering, He is always with us in and through out times of suffering.  Spafford experienced a supernatural peace and comfort that only God can give.

It may be that you are facing deep waters and bitter trials in your own life.  Dear friend, know that God is walking with you, side by side.  Regardless of what you are facing, a supernatural tranquility and peace is available to you.  It is yours for the taking.  Cast yourself on God and His promise; truly trust in Him, and this peace will be yours.  The apostle Paul tells us, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6-7).

Do not forget that Jesus Himself was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3).  Jesus knows the kind of pain that you are going through.  He is our sympathetic high priest (Hebrews 4:15).  And He will always be there right by your side through every trial you encounter.  Trust Him.  He will help you.

Taken from:  "Why do Bad Things Happen if God is Good?." Copyright (c) 2004 by Ron Rhodes. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR. Used by permission.

Ron Rhodes, president of Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries, is heard regularly on nationwide radio and is the author of" Find It Fast in the Bible", "Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses", and "The Complete Book of Bible Answers." He holds a Th.M. and Th.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary.